A sober budget, but pressure mounting for 2009

15 May 2008

This budget has delivered what people expected. It reins in expenditure, while investing for the future.

Good news for the tertiary sector is the creation of the Education Investment Fund (EIF) of $11 billion. Both the interest and capital from this fund will be used to restore crumbling infrastructure in the university system.

This will be supplemented by a special one-off Better Universities Renewal Fund of $500 million. BURF is earmarked for capital expenditure on facilities to support teaching, research and student amenities.

The Government has honoured and funded its pre-election commitments on fellowships and scholarships, doubling the number of postgraduate scholarships available to higher degree research students by 2012

Should some of this additional funding have been used to increase the value of the PhD scholarship? Analysis by CHASS and CAPA show that in 1992 the scholarship was 44% of average weekly earnings, but today it is 34%. This year the scholarship dropped below the Henderson Poverty Line.

The Future Fellowships scheme for top mid-career researchers will offer 1,000 Australian and international mid-career researchers four-year fellowships of up to $140,000 a year, with top-up funding to support infrastructure and equipment.

Much of the action in the tertiary sector is anticipated to occur in the next Budget, in May 2009. By then a series of reviews and inquiries will be complete, and the Government will have all the evidence it needs to frame new policies.

These reviews include the Cutler inquiry into the National Innovation System, the Bradley review of Australian Higher Education, and the House of Representatives inquiry into research training and research workforce issues in Australian universities.

There are already encouraging signs that over time the artificial divide between the humanities, arts and social sciences; and the natural sciences will weaken. As Kevin Rudd said in his closing address to the 2020 Conference on 20 April 2008:

“This false divide between the arts and science, between the arts and industry, between the arts and the economy: we’ve actually got to put that to bed. As if creativity is somehow this thing which only applies to the arts, and innovation is this thing over here which applies uniquely to the sciences, or technology, or to design. This is actually again a false dichotomy: it’s just not like that.

“Our ambition should be to create and to foster a creative imaginative Australia because so much of the economy of the twenty-first century is going to require that central faculty.”

The Arts sector is steady as she goes, with some small but welcome increases (resale royalty rights, funds for young and emerging artists, funding for Screen Australia and the National Film and Sound Archive). This sector may also benefit from the results of the Innovation Review